McNeil Island Correctional Center is shown in this view from the water Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007. Wai Chiu
McNeil Island Correctional Center is shown in this view from the water Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007. Wai Chiu "Tony" Ng, who was acquitted of murder and convicted of 13 counts of first-degree robbery and one count of second-degree assault for his role in the Feb. 19, 1983, killings of 13 people at the Wah Mee gambling club in Seattle is being held here. AP Photo - Ted S. Warren

America’s disturbing 'paedophile island'

FROM a distance, McNeil Island looks just like any other picturesque piece of land off the coast of Washington state.

But the 10km square rock, close to the bustling city of Tacoma, is vastly different to the other islands wealthy Americans vacation on.

It serves as the home for 236 "sexually violent predators", people the Pacific Northwest state are too afraid will reoffend if they're released back out into the world.

After sex offenders finish serving the time for the crimes they committed, an End of Sentence Review Committee assess whether or not they believe the person is a repeat offender.

Anyone who meets the definition of a "sexually violent predator" is sent to McNeil Island for an indefinite period of time to receive treatment.

In Washington state's opinion, they're its worst rapists and child molesters.

After being sent there, it's almost impossible for them to convince a court they should be re-released.

McNeil Island, established as a Special Commitment Centre in 1991, was once home to one of America's most notorious jails, serving as the last remaining island prison in the country to be accessible only by air and sea.

Charles Manson spent a number of years at McNeil Island in the 1960s.

The government officially closed the prison in 2011 after it became too expensive to run - eventually deciding to re-purpose the island as a "special commitment centre".

Others call it "paedophile island".

The island, only accessible by a ferry that runs every two hours, has been the home of many of the 236 for over a decade.

Justin, a man who recently managed to convince Washington he should be freed, was one of those who had spent at least 10 years on the island.

He started molesting children when he was a child himself and was convicted at the age 13 of first degree rape and for molesting his half sister for over a year. He was also abused himself.

Vice News spoke to Justin, who spent five years in prison and a decade at McNeil Island.

"I will tell you that it took forever for me to forgive myself for what I have done," he told the publication.

"I don't have any urges towards children, I don't have any struggles about urges towards children. I honestly am baffled because it's like I just stop thinking about it," he added.

Justin will get out later this year - with plenty of restrictions and monitoring.

Justin in his room at McNeil Island.
Justin in his room at McNeil Island.

Rachel Forde, who worked as Justin's lawyer for the past five years, said the treatment centre offers "no benefit at all".

"If our society gets together and says, 'we want life sentences for all sex offenders', then we should just be honest about that and say that and change our laws," Ms Forde said.

Elena Lopez, the clinical director at McNeil Island, said the main treatment they offer there is group therapy.

"The purpose of our treatment program is to manage their risk. It's not to eradicate, eliminate or get rid of, because most of our residents may always have a proclivity for deviancy in some way whether that's for children or non-consensual sex or other," Ms Lopez said.

And Bill Van Hook, who has run the centre for almost two years, said the only way people get out of the centre is if they throw themselves into treatment.

"They think, 'I have to get involved in treatment and that's how I'm going to get out,'" Mr Van Hook said.


Special Commitment Centres (SCC) have been the subject of controversy for a number of years as they allow the involuntary confinement of sex offenders after they have fulfilled their court sentence.

Of America's 50 states, 20 of them have facilities like McNeil Island where "sexually violent predators" are able to be committed for an undefined amount of time.

Despite no longer being technically incarcerated, people on the island are paid prison wages - which often equate to less than $3 an hour.

In 2010, sexual predator Gordon Michael Strauss filed a lawsuit disputing the low wage claiming that because the SCC is a civil treatment program and not a prison, the residents should get minimum wage.

The 59-year-old serial rapist, who was sent to McNeil Island in 1998, dropped the dispute a week later without explanation.

In 1997, the US Supreme Court ruled the facilities across the 20 states are legal.

And as Mr Van Hook said, it doesn't look like the place is closing in the near future.

"It'd be a tough sell [to shut it down]," he said.